You learn a lot about a person based on their reaction to Suspiria. What do they value in film? In life? Do they like ooky shit that assaults the senses, but in an artful way? Do they care if their narratives are lumbering, misshapen messes so long as the feeling is there?
Suspiria is Dario Argento’s most famous film, a story about a dance academy run by murderous witches. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) flies in from the US and becomes a new dance student, only to fall under the curse of the coven, led by a mysterious, unseen headmistress.
But what Suspiria is really about is capturing the sensation of being in a nightmare. And it pretty much works, mostly for the positive. There is a plot to the movie, but it’s pretty secondary to the sensory experience of the film. The film’s two central tools are its disorientingly well-lit colors and its unsettling prog drone score. Let’s talk through each, because they are both essential.
My friend Brian and I watched Suspiria and discussed it on our first podcast episode, and came to the same conclusion: The colors and lighting in this movie are ludicrous. Brian declared the film “the reddest movie,” which is a line I still think about a lot. He’s not entirely wrong: Suspiria drowns you in bold colors all throughout its design, especially a million shades of scarlet, vermillion, cherry, ruby. For one there’s the paint-like blood, splattered no more intensely than in a narratively unnecessary scene early on that is the film’s most elaborate and garish death: a chandelier hanging and impalement. And really, the pool of red begins even before that: When Bannion is taking a rainy cab ride, the red lights on her face from the glaring neon and puddle reflections portend the demons she’ll face.
The colors are a sort of reverse-hypnosis: splashed in patterns such that you never feel relaxed. In addition to the red, there’s huge waves of blue and green and yellow. A particularly gnarly scene of maggots falling from the ceiling (perhaps the most explicitly nightmare-esque moment of the film) gets a pool of inhuman blue, for example.
All of those colors and vivid lighting support the rendering of a very memorable setting. The majority of the film is set inside the dance academy, which is almost the opposite of disorienting. Strictly orienting. It’s so geometrically clean that it feels like it’s made of cardstock. Its artificiality is of a different kind from the color blasts; there’s an empty, dollhouse quality to it.
The film’s next important tool is that soundtrack by Argento’s frequent collaborator — and mainstay of any Halloween party background music playlist — Goblin. It’s an alien avant garde masterpiece of a score in the vein of Halloween’s soundtrack: all jittery and uncomfortable and steely, with the added layer of ethereal vocals moan-whispering noises that sound close enough to words that your ears grasp for meaning. I personally hear a wispy “witch” repeated.
The downside of the film feeling so nightmarish is that dreams are not especially logical. And sure enough, the plot of this thing is remarkably lumpy. We don’t learn anything about Helena Markos, the big bad witch, until about two thirds of the way through the film (and, in fact, we don’t even know witches are involved at all until then). We get this info from a whiplash-inducing exposition dump, where one professorial character announces “witches aren’t real” before another immediately appears and says “witches are very real” — all of it delivered in boring monologues.
The pacing is extremely uneven, never moreso than in the finale. Suspiria hits its climax about four minutes before the film ends. A reality-rupturing breakdown of the very sturdiness of the sets and the rules of filmic reality occurs, but it occupies much more mindspace than runtime: It’s, without exaggeration, about 30 seconds, and then the film cuts to credit. I could have done with another 10 minutes tacked to the ending to make the whole descent to the coven feel more enveloping; its destruction more cathartic and awe-inspiring.
Nonetheless, I find it a very compelling cinematic experience overall, and one that I liked more than ever revisiting it in 2022. It just creates such a rich and special experience. I wish its story had more muscle, but, overall, its vibe and aggressive stylistic techniques and formal extremism work. So I guess I have learned something about myself. Bring on the ooky, sense-attacking shit!
Note: I mentioned that Suspiria was the topic of my first podcast episode. It was also the first movie review I wrote, in more than a half a decade, barely a paragraph, back in August 2020 when I started finding time to watch movies again.